My dad came home from work one day with a story that clearly amazed him. He told us about it at the dinner table.
Dad was a pharmaceutical salesman, and on that day he had paid a visit to a physician at a residential facility for seriously mentally ill patients. At the reception desk he was cleared through a locked door with directions to find the physician’s office. But somehow he lost his way in the huge facility and found himself in a corridor of patients’ rooms. As he passed a room, desperate to find his way, a man suddenly stuck his head out of a door and beckoned him to come inside.
Dad was uncomfortable. He wasn’t authorized to be in the patients’ section and he had no idea what the rules were for interacting with residents. He didn’t want to break protocol. But he also didn’t want to offend the man. So he greeted him and asked how he could help. “I’m the world’s greatest bed maker,” the man declared with no small amount of pride. Dad nodded and congratulated him, even more uncomfortable in the wake of the claim.
“Let me show you,” the man said as he stepped back into his room and waved for dad to follow. Dad was apprehensive, but he followed the man until he stood in the open doorway with a good view of the man and his bed.
Suddenly, the man ripped off all the bed’s covers and tossed them on the floor. Then, just as suddenly, he grabbed the bottom sheet and covered the mattress pad. In a flash he added the top sheet and blanket. Dad said it happened so fast he could scarcely follow the man’s movements. In just a few seconds the man had made a perfect bed.
“You could have bounced a dime off it,” Dad said. “My first thought was I wished he had been in boot camp with me to help me make my bed for inspections. The guy was right. He has to be the best bed maker in all the world.”
Dad’s point in telling the story, as he then made explicit to us, is that everyone, no matter what their personal or material circumstances, has dignity, a unique gift and a lesson to teach us. By “everyone,” he now made clear, he included those people who couldn’t even function in everyday society.
Their gift and their lesson may not be prized in the marketplace or worthy of inclusion in Who’s Who, but it is nevertheless remarkable, can contribute to the common good and is worthy of our admiration and gratitude.
If we haven’t learned such a lesson from each and every person we’ve met, it’s only because we have not listened or looked long or hard enough. It is there, awaiting our discovery, and our failure to perceive it is just that – our failure, not anyone else’s.
That was one of Dad’s bedrock convictions, and I’ve never forgotten it. I can’t say I’ve learned something from everyone I’ve met. But I know the failure – and the loss – is mine.
Dad’s conviction about the dignity and value of everyone is the very foundation of effective leadership. Jesus taught it and lived it. And Christianity has consistently professed it – despite the many instances when it and its members have observed it mostly in the breach.
What’s exciting now is that the so-called secular world is learning that lesson too.
Research continues to pile up that effective leadership – leading to exceptional organizational performance – is not simply a matter of “command, control and compliance.” That’s why the military academies, where you might expect such an approach to reign supreme, actually teach their perspective officers how to be servant leaders, focused on mission rather than self.
I read a lot of leadership literature, both anecdotal and research based. Everywhere I look, nearly every page I turn, I find a focus on the necessity of leaders recognizing the dignity of their followers. (For a real summer treat, read the very short book Leadership is an Art by Max Depree, former CEO of Herman Miller, the office furniture company and cash cow. Its opening story about attending the funeral of a former employee is, by itself, worth the price of the book.)
Sometimes when I speak to leaders -- especially those self-styled “hard-headed, bottom-line” types that are frequently found in business enterprises – they’re amazed to discover that Jesus’ approach to leadership was centuries ahead of the curve and that a mounting body of real world research shows it really, really works.
“Yeah, it’s hard to believe, isn’t it?” I tease. “Just imagine, God was right.”
We all enjoy a good chuckle. But that points to the deeper truth: it is way too easy to forget the basics, especially when we’re under a lot of stress, be we forget at our own peril – and the peril of the organizations we serve.
The fact of the matter -- owing to the Creator’s very design of the universe -- is that everyone has dignity and worth. If we don’t believe that or if we forget it, we forfeit the opportunity to be an effective leader in the image of Jesus Christ, the greatest leadership teacher and role model of all time.
Pray that with each passing day we all become more able to truly love our neighbor as ourselves, and in that way help build up both our leadership aptitude and the very Kingdom of God.